Communication Skills: When the CFO Has to Make a Presentation

It’s a perennial plaint we hear from CFOs about the members of their finance team – and often, also themselves. Why can’t finance folks persuade others in the team and the rest of the organization, and also outside stakeholders, to implement (or even just comprehend) a recommended course of action?

We were reminded of this at a recent roundtable discussion in Hong Kong with ten finance leaders, who talked about how finance planning and analytics specialists can be more effective in their work.

The consensus was that the FP&A team and others in finance are generally competent in technical skills and knowledge, but they need to do much more in articulating their thoughts and findings.

“If you deliver a report to the board and there is no wow factor, you’re gone. You have to tell something to the CEO and board that they didn’t realize”

The key weakness was story-telling, said the participants – the art of making numbers come alive, connecting the dots, and as one CFO put it, showcasing the ‘wow factor’.

“Despite the valuable information they offer, finance presentations often fall flat,” agreed the CEB, a best-practice insight and technology company.

“They tend to concentrate too heavily on reams of complicated data and fail to answer specific questions and concerns of the audience: the line managers and other business partners that must make decisions based on this data.”

Drawing on its surveys on the subject and consultancy work with finance functions across the world, CEB has come up with five steps that it says could help finance teams “produce and deliver more compelling presentations.”

Start with the most important ideas, it recommends, using data to enlighten rather than confuse, and structure presentations around a few main themes.

Lay the groundwork

This seems like a no-brainer, but deadlines, time constraint and lack of clear leadership can often take away the focus on this basic step. It’s important that every member of the team taking part in the presentation is clearly assigned responsibilities at the outset.

“Analysts can be responsible for gathering the necessary information,” the CEB suggests, and senior analysts tasked with preparing and delivering the presentation to business partners. “The department or function head can give feedback to the presenters, and actually deliver the final presentation to senior management.”

“It’s also crucial to establish a timeline and clearly state what content, data, etc is needed, so that the necessary analysis can be done in time,” the CEB adds.

One key takeaway: Identify the most newsworthy and actionable information early on and support it with relevant facts and trends.

This is the same point that Vincent Liew, CFO at architectural design firm Aedas, made at the Hong Kong roundtable. “If you deliver a report to the board and there is no wow factor, you’re gone,” he said. “You have to tell something to the CEO and board that they didn’t realize. ‘Wow, I didn’t know the trend is like this. Wow, I need to do something.’”

The initial identification of the key message or messages will help focus everyone’s mind on what needs to be done. However, you should also be open to the possibility that the wow factor may have to be refined or changed altogether as more information is gathered and analyzed.

Don’t preach in vain

Understand your audience and determine what information, data, and story will be the most relevant to tell to them, counsels the CEB.

It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that the data and insights you choose to highlight should be “relevant, authoritative, actionable, unique, and memorable.”

You should also understand your audience’s communication style and adapt your approach so the presentation will have the maximum impact.

Deciding what the two or three themes are and the key message for each page of the presentation should be linked to who the audience is and finance’s purpose in communicating with that audience

The CEB helpfully supplies a chart that puts together four styles of communications (see graphic below).  

Four communications styles to suit your audience

Source: CEB analysis

If the audience is focused on process, as may be the case when the presentation is to a unit that wants to change its system, for example, the most appropriate style may be what the CEB terms as “analytic.” In this approach, the presenter gets into the mind-set of: “Let me think how it could work” in relation to the audience’s process.

The presenter would be at his or her best being efficient, focused, goal-oriented, realistic, independent and determined. What should be avoided is to sound critical, indecisive, old-fashioned, hard to please, moralistic and unemotional.

If the audience comprise decision-makers looking at strategy, planning, anticipating digital disruption and so on (the likes of the management committee or the board), the mind-set should be one of a driver urging the audience: “Let’s take action on this.”

The presenter should be candid, strong-willed, independent, decisive, practical, efficient and determined, but should avoid coming off as harsh, controlling, shortsighted, abrasive, pushy and power seeking.

The two other styles are termed “amiable” (people-focused), which we think is appropriate for presenting to finance team members on such topics as automating finance processes or creating a finance shared services center, and “expressive” (ideas-focused), which should be useful when talking to planners and policy-makers about the company’s vision, mission and long-term future.

What’s the key message?

“Structure your presentation around two or three themes that pertain throughout the presentation, and decide on a key message for each page,” the CEB advises.

The initial identification of the key messages in the laying-the-groundwork stage comes in useful here. At this point, the team should have a clearer idea on what the many pieces of information mean for the company, after they have been analyzed.

From our point of view, deciding what the two or three themes are and the key message for each page of the presentation should be linked to who the audience is and finance’s purpose in communicating with that audience, in the first place.

For example, if the objective is to share what the CFO has learned about finance transformation with fellow finance leaders in a conference, the key themes and messages are best structured as narratives, not directives.

The key messages should not be structured as “This is what you should do,” but rather as “This is what we learned,” “This is what we found works best for us” and “This is what we would do if we have the chance to do the finance transformation project all over again.” 

The CEB has additional takeaways:

  • Don’t load pages with information, trends, and insights; make them easy to consume
  • Be wary of a sequence of messages and data that don’t support your overarching recommendations
  • Be transparent about sources and assumptions; then you won’t have to waste time discussing whether the data is correct and be able to concentrate on the insight
  • Test your presentation with other members of your team to see how you can improve it

“Stories are memorable, easy to understand, and establish a common ground with others that create credibility”

Script, rehearse, and anticipate follow-up questions

Set the context clearly and incorporate metaphors, anecdotes, or stories to create an engaging presentation, says the CEB. It extracts the thoughts of three specialists to serve as tips in this regard:

Bring the audience into the presentation. “People value their own conclusions more highly than yours,” observes Annette Simmons in The Story Factor. “They will only have faith in a story that has become real for them personally.”

Take advantage of memory processes. “Information delivered through stories is more memorable,” says Andres Abela in Advanced Presentations by Design. “Memory is strengthened by linking information together, and stories link stories in multiple ways.”

Trigger high-arousal emotions. “Stories are memorable, easy to understand, and establish a common ground with others that create credibility,” write Randolph T. Barker and Kim Gower in Strategic Application of Storytelling in Organizations.

“Narratives also create a sense of empathy from a cognitive and emotional position to help us understand the experiences and world views of others.”

The CEB also suggests preparing answers to potential questions business partners might ask. “Identify point in the presentation where you can initiate a discussion that will make the lessons more memorable and spur the audience to action,” it adds.

Find out how you did

In this final step, “seek feedback from the audience both on the content of the presentation and your effectiveness as a presenter,” says the CEB. “Also, establish a follow-up process and regularly send updates to stakeholders to remind them of the action steps agreed on after the presentation.”

What if new information surfaces and finance decides to make major changes to recommendations in the presentation? “You will need to communicate this,” says the CEB – possibly with another presentation.

In which case, see Step 1.

Photo credit: Shutterstock


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